‘I’m proud to be called a nerd!’ Big names in pop and rock who love model railways | hobby
Rod Stewart’s train setup isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’ll find in a child’s room. His epic Grand Street & Three Rivers City is a stunningly realistic 139 square meter (1,500 square foot) depiction of a mid-20th century industrialized city. Based on 1940s Manhattan and Chicago, the labor of love – which takes pride of place in his Beverly Hills mansion – features skyscrapers up to 5 feet tall, warehouses, bridges and traffic during rush hour, with vintage cars and trucks, replicated sections of river and even an amazingly detailed miniature power plant.
“It took me 23 years to build [and it’s] bigger than most people’s homes,” he told the Guardian in November. “It’s very expensive, but it’s worth it, because it’s my favorite hobby. I work there every day. »
Rod the Mod isn’t the only music star to have a double life in model railroading. Neil Young has a model alias (Clyde Coil) and would at one time have had a huge barn containing 230 meters of track, complete with trains, buildings, trees and tunnels. It is believed that Elton John has a track running through his backyard. Jools Holland’s collection, which stretches up to 30 meters in length, includes a route from London to Berlin.
Going back a bit, Frank Sinatra reportedly owned $1 million worth of model trains and replicas from his native Hoboken, New Jersey, which he kept in a room called — but of course — All Aboard. Rock gods known to have private passions for small engines and cars include Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Ringo Starr. But maybe the worlds of music and railroad modeling aren’t as different as they might seem.
Musicians have been writing songs about rail travel since at least 1828, when Arthur Clifton wrote the Carrollton March to commemorate the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which opened two years later. The train features in many spiritual or blues songs and is often described as a gateway to a promised land. Woody Guthrie’s catalog is full of rail songs – Train Blues, This Train Is Bound for Glory and Lost Train Blues – while pop songs referencing train travel range from Elvis Presley’s debut single Mystery Train to the Trans- Europe Express from Kraftwerk and Stewart’s bestselling cover of the train from downtown Tom Waits. Some songs even have rhythms reminiscent of rolling trains, from Louis Jordan’s Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (“Get Me Back to the Track Right Now, Jack”) to Led Zeppelin’s version of When the dike breaks.
So the fascination with trains is partly conventional nostalgia, but may be more deeply rooted in the sounds we heard as children and in the experience of traveling on a train.
“I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with us,” says Pete Waterman, the producer/songwriter behind Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Jason Donovan. He is one of the UK’s leading model railroaders. “But it’s about hands-on creativity and a tremendous amount of research, which isn’t that different from making music.
“Rod’s work is fantastic. What he does with these American buildings takes skill. Not everyone can pick up a piece of plastic and cardboard and build like him. Rod’s big thing is skyscrapers. Mine is trees. I’m going to make them out of wire and spend hours putting all the leaves on them. It has become an obsession, to which he devotes the same energy that he once deployed to break records.
“In the music industry, you’re constantly learning what your competition is doing and what’s going on,” says Waterman, who recently designed and built a 20 meter long layout in Chester Cathedral. “It’s the exact same thought process that I brought to Kylie or anyone: ‘I’ve got a No. 1 single. How can I get another one? It’s just that at Instead of wondering where to put a cymbal, I’m like, ‘Does that tree walk there? Is that house too close to the train tracks? It ticks the exact same boxes.
He admits that lying awake at night thinking about such questions sometimes makes him think, “It’s a model railway! Am I going crazy? There’s a stigma attached, he says, especially for someone involved in music. While the dreaded cries like “trainspotter” and “adult playing with toys” aren’t as powerful as they used to be, he doesn’t think “Rod would have spoken about it 20 years ago.”
Waterman was a trainspotter (at Leamington Spa station, of which he built a model) in his youth. His charity, Waterman Railway Heritage Trust, is now home to full-size steam trains and locomotives. “After I left [as a modeller], everyone got out. I’m proud to be called a nerd or a trainspotter. I don’t attack people. I model trains. He suspects there are many more famous modelers than we know. “Lots of famous people whispered to me, ‘I’m in too.’
The bug usually begins in childhood. Waterman, 75, got his first plastic clockwork locomotive when he was very young; his first lead was on a board placed over the bath. “I had trains for almost 18 months of my life. It must be a record,” he laughs.
Most people give up their hobby in their teens or when they start working and don’t have the time or space anymore. “Then you come to a point in your life where you have more disposable income,” says Dave Minarik, a railroad modeling columnist who is also the drummer for Pittsburgh-based country rockers the Clarks (they have a song called Train). “So open the closet and get those boxes out again.”
It can be surprisingly expensive. Waterman admits he can’t justify spending £4,000-5,000 on a specialist Gauge 0 locomotive. “Even a standard HST [high-speed train] the set is up to £180, just for the two power cars,” he says. But, in general, successful musicians have more time, money, and space to indulge than most.
Waterman built his first serious layout in a barn in his backyard. Stewart’s childhood bedroom overlooked a railroad track, and he built his first track in the family council house in the 1960s. He began his epic construction of Three Rivers in 1993, completing 90% himself. even, even on tour, when he rented an extra hotel room every night for the tracks.
“It’s a great form of escape,” says Minarik. “You control your own world, and as bad as the real world sometimes gets, it can be sunny every day on your network. There is no crime and certainly no politics. It’s one of the few places you can go where you only have to deal with pleasant or fun things.
Steve Flint, the editor of Railway Modeller, who interviewed Stewart for his magazine, argues that, as with rock ‘n’ roll, there is an element of role-playing. “We become the signaller, and then we make the timetables or drive the trains.” Some people literally dress up for the role, though Waterman strongly rejects his daughters’ suggestion to “dress up as a bloody stationmaster.”
Similarly, modeling can help during difficult times. Young – who received his first train as a child – built a huge network and designed special controls for his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, to control the trains. When Waterman’s son Paul died in 2005 at age 33, Waterman couldn’t listen to music, but modeling brought him solace. “Oh, it saved my life,” he said. “In the nicest way, because you’re focusing on the trains and not thinking about all the crap that’s going on around you. You’re not running away from it, but it’s a little easier to face each day.
It was the opposite for me (yes, an admission: I love model trains). My dad built mine when I was five; after his death a year later, the train became a way to remember and connect with him.
“I guess a lot of us are loners,” Waterman says. “In the music industry, although you are part of a group or a team, you are very isolated in your way of thinking. When I was a child, I was often alone, so to play I had to go on and do it. He still does, though he says he enjoys the camaraderie of being part of a modeling team. “I’ve always liked that about [real] railways. There’s the driver, the fitter, the boilermaker… The organization always fascinates me – and the feeling of being safe.
This year, his team is planning an even bigger development in Chester. “Once you have the bug, you want to build a bigger one. Not because bigger is better, but because you want to fix all the problems.
Anne Diamond is one of the few famous female models, while Michael Jordan is the only high profile black celebrity – but probably won’t be for long. “We are now seeing a lot more non-white faces at exhibits,” says Tom Cunnington, vice president and director of exhibits at Model Railroad Clubcreated in 1910. There are more women too. “Some may have brought their kids originally, but they got into it too. Everyone is welcome and it is no longer the prerogative of men. Waterman agrees. “Some of the best models in the UK, if not Europe, are now women, and there are LGBT and transgender models [including Eddie Izzard],” he says. “You never would have had this 25 years ago.”
For Flint, famous enthusiasts such as Stewart and Waterman are doing the hobby a “brilliant favor” by publicizing it and even making it — gulp — cooler. “There are still occasional chuckles, but railway modeling is considered more normal,” he says. He was especially thrilled to be able to put Stewart on the cover of Railway Modellerafter the legendary rocker insisted that being on the cover of a modeling magazine was “better than being on the cover of Rolling Stone”.